Trip Report – June 2021
This was just a short Alaska birding trip as we were supposed to be on a much bigger trip to include Barrow and the Pribilof Islands which had to be scaled back due to Covid travel restrictions to some of these areas.
Part 1 – Nome
We flew to Anchorage and then on to Nome where we spent 4 days birding.
Nome is a relatively easy area to bird, especially with eBird sightings. There are 3 main roads out of Nome and each one is good for different species. We drove several of them on multiple occasions so rather than doing a daily report I thought I would do it by road.
This is pretty obvious – it starts as Front Street and then head east and is the route to get the seabirds etc. You can stop and bird whenever to see something but the key areas are Nome Bridge, Nome Point and Safety Sound.
We had some very specific targets and we managed most of them along this strip. Nome Bridge gave us our first Aleutian Terns. Nome Point offered our first Horned Puffin and close by we lucked out with a Stejneger’s (Siberian) Scoter in a large raft of White-winged, Surf and Black Scoter. Further along at Safety Sound we got Sabine’s Gull and Crested Auklet.
This whole strip is great for many species and worth spending several days exploring. We had hoped for a Steller’s or Spectacled Eider and Emperor Goose but they just weren’t to be found.
This starts out just east of town as Beam Road and goes for about 84 miles to nowhere!
It is the road for Bristle-thighed Curlew. On the way we managed our first Willow Ptarmigan and there were other quite birdy stops along the way. Nothing else new for us but nice to see Fox Sparrows singing and lots of Hoary and Common Redpolls and Hermit Thrushes.
This is the mountain where only 2 or 3 pairs of birds nest is and it is covered in huge mounds of wet, grassy tussocks and stunted willow which are nicknamed ‘ankle breakers’ and for good reason – if you try to stand on them, they tip sideways and if you step between them, you don’t know if you’re going to find firm ground or sink in 2 inches or 2 feet in to water! Use this narrow trail going up which helps a bit but when you get to the top it is a vast high arctic plateau which extends as far as the eye can see.
There were lots of Whimbrel and we had spectacular views of two birds which landed close enough to touch at one point, walking around us and calling literally feet away, but we couldn’t find the curlew and it’s such an enormous
area – literally like looking for a needle in a haystack but finally we heard their distinctive flute-like cascading whistle and saw them fly to a ridge – we slogged back up and finally got good views of them! They are quite similar to Whimbrel but with diagnostic cinnamon-colored rumps so you have to have good views or hear them call to really separate them from the Whimbrel which also nest there in good numbers.
By this time, we were completely lost and disoriented and had no chance of finding the narrow trail back down to the road so ended up just having to hike down the mountain which was knackering and took 3 hours – at these moments the thoughts that always cross your mind are ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘we must be crazy!’ Of course, it’s always worth it when you get the bird!
We spent many hours looking for Rock Ptarmigan. We never did see it, although they were definitely out there because other people were seeing them. Still, that is birding for you.
At mile marker 34 there is a small road off to the right (supposedly this was where the ptarmigan were!) and at the top we had stunning views of Northern Wheatear, Red Knot and American Golden Plover.
On the drive out there are chances for Bluethroat and Arctic warbler so it is quite worth spending the time.
Part 2 – Denali
Next, we flew back down to Anchorage and drove up to Denali NP.
Our only real target up here was Smith’s Longspur and to enjoy the scenery of the Denali Highway. This was quite a highlight. It was a 9-hour, 270-mile round trip for one species and we wouldn’t have got it had we not bumped in to a Wing’s group on the Denali Highway who told us where it was! We were expecting it to be really visible like other Longspur’s we’ve seen but the Wing’s guide said they’re not like that – they’re really scarce and never leave the ground and are only found in very specific habitat – another 2-hour hike across the tundra but we got it and had amazing views of a male singing – another needle in a haystack found and such a beautiful bird!
There was plenty of other birding along the way but due to the distance we had to travel we really didn’t stop much. We could have stayed closer to our target (about 21 miles outside Paxson) but accommodation seemed a bit more rustic than we like. Having said that, we had lunch at the McLaren Rive Lodge and would probably have been fine staying there for closer access.
Then we spent 2 nights at the Denali Backcountry Lodge before flying out on a bush plane over the park and around Denali (Mount McKinley). Not a birding couple of days but some good wildlife (bears, caribou, mountain sheep and mouse) and the flight out was spectacular.
Part 3 – Seward
We then drove 6.5 hours down to Seward for a boat trip for some target pelagic species.
We got all of our target species Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, Red-faced Cormorant, and Parakeet Auklet. We went on Kenai Fjords Tour to the North Western Glacier. The captain knew where all the birds were and, other than Ancient Murrelet, there were all easy to find.
Alaska is so cool for hearing birds singing we don’t hear in Vancouver and some of the regional dialects really threw us. Listening to birds like Fox, Golden-crowned, White-crowned and American Tree Sparrows, Grey-cheeked and Hermit thrushes singing was really interesting, same with Northern Waterthrush which threw us for a bit. Seeing all the shorebirds in breeding plumages was great too – American Golden Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, Western and Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Red-necked Stint, which we had a few feet from us and which was so bright it really was stunning!
We enjoyed this trip – it was fairly easy and we got most of the birds we wanted – Our time in Barrow and the Pribolofs will have to wait until next time!
Anchorage – Coast Inn on Hood Lake – not fancy but it does for a night or 2 and the foods is good. Don’t be taken in by the photos on the website, they must have been taken a long time ago! (like so many hotels on the internet!) and it is noisy as float planes take off every 5 minutes from the lake right outside your bedroom window!
Nome – Aurora Inn – really the only place to stay but the service is terrible (this is also where you rent your car). The phone is never answered and when it is you’re immediately put on terminal hold. Derek left his cell phone in the rental car which they found – we offered to pay to ship it back to us but the woman at the hotel said it wasn’t their responsibility and after several calls to follow up put the phone down! We have now contacted the management company that owns the hotel who have promised to follow up!
Denali – Denali Park Village – awful – avoid if you can!
Denali Back Country Lodge – nice but ridiculously over-priced and nowhere near luxurious enough for the money they are charging – $1,300 US PER NIGHT and the service was really poor for a hotel positioning itself as a luxury facility and charging these prices!
Seward – Harbor 360 hotel. Fine.
Guides & Resources
Guides: We didn’t use any. Kenai Fjord Tours for boat trip – https://www.alaskacollection.com/day-tours/kenai-fjords-tours/
Sibley Birds of North America App.